World Building (15): The Duchy of Ioliérs

Historically, the Duchy of Ioliérs has existed in a somewhat contentious relationship with its neighbors to the west over the Pireña. There are a few territories that straddle this natural boundary that both countries lay claim to, and there have been a few border wars that have escalated to the point that the Imperators have had to intervene.

Economically, the duchy is known for its wines and for its mines (located in the mountains). A cluster of blood-red grapes are in fact the sigil of the current reigning ducal House d’Vais.

The duchy is the site of several significant cathedrals and other holy sites in the history of the True Faith, and the Church’s presence is particularly strong here. However, the Deacons of this region have also been known to indulge in some practices and beliefs that dance along the edge of heresy, and for this reason the Council of Prelates has kept a very close eye on them. The universities, however, have been responsible for some of the most learned interpretations of the holy books, as well as significant discoveries in terms of philosophy, science, and agriculture.

As was the case with many of the other duchies, there once existed a powerful local nobility and people, known as the Rikarians, a largely-tribal people who had resisted the efforts of their Haransharin overlords to keep them in line. They largely continued to worship their own deities. While there had been some contact between these people and the powerful duchy of Alusium in the south (which even before the uprising that led to the forming of the Imperium had been exerting influence), for the most part they remained stubbornly out of tune with the rest of the other countries that would become the Imperium.

When the first Imperators solidified their power in the region by marrying their daughter Irene to one of the many local dynasties, she served as a bridge between the hybridized Alusine/Helleneian culture of her parents and the local culture of the Rikarians. So beloved was she that she would become almost a goddess among the common people and, despite the strict ban of the increasingly powerful Church on the veneration of anyone who was not formally recognized as a saint, she has remained a pervasive presence to this day.

The fusion of these two cultural traditions, combined with the relative peace and prosperity of the region, has given birth to a place where beauty, love, and the arts are the highest aspirations. For the Rikarians, despite their quarrels with one another, possessed a poetic soul, and their tales were filled with stories of chivalry, courtly romance, and the sweet things of life. This melded easily with the deliberate (and sometimes) cold approach to such things favoured by the newly-arrived Helleneian and Alusine noble class. The rash of intermarriages that occurred, not just among the upper classes but throughout the culture, ensured that within a few generations the process was largely complete.

The current Duchess of Ioliérs is one Blanche d’Vais. As one of the blood royal, she claims a seat on the highest tear of the Senate of Nobles. She has so far proven to be one of Talinissia’s more supportive allies in the Senate, though in recent years she has withdrawn to her own estates in her duchy to be with her grandchildren. She has five children, three sons and two daughters. (She maintains a very large network of spies and informants in both the capital and elsewhere, however). Her heir is Lord Imael, who has so far shown that he is content to rule his domains and not interfere with Imperial matters more than necessary.

Blanche d’Vais is also well known for her support of the Academy in Aionis as well as the one located in her own capital of Viente, and she has long been rumoured to be particularly enamoured of the more arcane branches of knowledge that are typically considered out of bounds for one of her station. In the more sinister whisperings, she is even supposed to have engaged in the forbidden dark arts of blood sacrifice, particularly as these might grant her the youth that seems to be slipping away from her (at the time of the events of the series she is nearly 70).

In terms of historical analogues in our own world, Ioliérs is similar to the courts of Navarre and of the courts of love in Aquitaine.

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Queer Classics: The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Call Me By Your Name” (2017)

Warning. Spoilers for the film follow.

Call Me By Your Name opens with a series of snapshots of statues from antiquity, emblems of beauty, desire, and a world lost to the vicissitudes of time. About midway through the film, the main character Elio’s father refers to these statues, arguing that they dare us to desire, their faintly contorted forms contending with the perils of physicality.

In a similar way, Call Me By Your Name dares us to desire, to give ourselves up to the complicated, messy, infuriating yet delicious confusion of lust, love, and longing.

Set in the early 1980s in the north of Italy, the film follows young 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student, as they contend with their burgeoning feelings for one another. Their friendship blossoms into an intense physical and emotional connection, before Oliver must return to the United States, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind.

In some ways, the film’s narrative reminds me more than a little of the tragic romance between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the youth Antinoös. It’s more than just the age difference–though that’s part of it. It’s about the aching beauty of youth, about the awareness that the passion that begins any relationship is doomed to cool in the fires of time. If you’ve ever read the heart-wrenching Memoirs of Hadrian, you’ll know what I mean.

The performances are…exquisite. There’s really no other word for it. Hammer has that sort of effortless male handsomeness that one associates with classic Hollywood, but it is his effortlessly masculine voice that truly stirs the loins. There’s just something deeply erotic about the richness of it, a deep purr that also reminds me of the best voices of classic Hollywood actors (I’m thinking in particular of Gregory Peck). I will say, though, that his character Oliver remains something of an enigma. We don’t really get to know him in the same way Elio,

For his part, Timothée Chalamet shines as Elio. He possesses the same sort of elusive beauty as the statues that his father so lovingly excavates. Several times, the camera catches him in profile, and I couldn’t help but notice that he bore a striking resemblance to those same ancient statues. Maybe it’s the turn of the nose, or perhaps it’s just the slightly elfin cast to his features. I’m not quite sure.

And, also like those statues, Chalamet manages to convey the gangly, tormented physicality of a teenage boy in hopeless love. There’s a certain anguish that Chalamet captures, both in his simultaneously graceful and awkward physical comportment as well as his ability to convey Elio’s uncertainty about his feelings for the golden-haired Oliver. The first half of the film sees the two of them existing in an uneasy tension, neither quite able to express openly the way they clearly feel about one another.

When they finally do consummate their affection, the camera is rather shy, not showing the details but leaving us in no doubt as to what is happening. In keeping the lovemaking away from the gaze, the film dares us to experience the erotic without the messy trappings of the prurient. The physically intimate relationship the two clearly share is conveyed in other, arguably more meaningful ways: through a gentle touch of a leg, the touching of one foot upon the other, a tender yet passionate kiss.

But, just as the statues of antiquity, for all their beauty, remain fragmented, beaten down and broken apart by the vicissitudes of time, so the romance between Elio and Oliver must contend with the fact that it will always be limited by their time together. Theirs is a connection doomed to flower and then instantly begin to fade, mirroring the exquisite fruits that so often appear on the table.

And that, to me, seems to be the film’s central interest. For as much as Elio is in the midst of his beautiful youth and as profound as this relationship with Oliver has been, time will inevitably wear away the hard edges of it. That romance, like all things, will fall victim to the vicissitudes of memory. And, for the film, it also falls victim to Oliver, who eventually departs, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind in Italy. When he calls his mother and asks her to come and get him, the heartbreak feels real and even now, a few days after I’ve seen the film, I still feel that gut-punch of the end of a romance.

Fortunately for Elio, his father (played by a scene-stealing Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man of infinite wit and wisdom. In a heart-warming (and wrenching) talk with his son, he reminds him that he shouldn’t crush the part of him that was hurt, in the hope that it will keep the pain away. Instead, he should remember the beautiful bond that he had with Oliver, recognizing that feeling is an essential part of what makes us human and what gives life its peculiar savor.

The film, like the ancient statuary with which it begins, attempts to capture an elusive, transient moment of summer. But of course, cinematic time waits for no one, and for all of the camera’s loving, lingering attention to the pleasures of the fleshly instant, it inevitably moves us forward. The summers of our life cannot be held, much as we might wish it were otherwise, and it is precisely because they are so transient that they pierce us with their intensity. We mourn the passing, even as we are in the midst of it. Call Me, more than perhaps any other film that I’ve recently seen, captures the fleeting nature of desire.

Call Me By Your Name is one of those extraordinary stories of queer love that stays with you. It’s not tragic, but it is bittersweet, and in that sense it ably captures the contradictions at the heart of so much queer love. While we have come a long way in terms of the societal acceptance of same-sex love, there are still many more mysteries to the queer heart, many of which don’t even have a name.

And yet still they call to our hearts.

World Building (14): On Aspaña

The dukedom of Aspaña is known as one of the primary agricultural regions of the Imperium. A variety of grains are grown here, including wheat, barley, and rye, as well as more exotic products such as oranges, lemons, and peaches. The pomegranate is the official sigil of the current House, Trasteceré. There are also a number of gold mines located in the eastern regions (along the mountains known as the Pireña) as well as several veins of precious iron ore. The steel produced in this region is acknowledged as some of the finest in the Imperium (and indeed on the continent of Aridikh itself). The duchy is also renowned for its horse-flesh, and the stables of the various noble families are filled with thousands of steeds. The Dukes are thus some of the wealthiest landowners and most powerful of the Great Houses.

The current Duke is one Ferdinand IV who, through his marriage to his third cousin Leonara, managed to bring together two rival claims for the dukedom. As a result, they also brought stability to a very disturbed part of the Imperium. There were some whispers of the consequences of this union, especially since there was significant unrest among both of their adherents, as well as among the Yishurim, a prominent minority and frequently subject to exploitation and abuse from the powerful True Faith majority.

The two nobles have become quite renowned for their devotion to the True Faith, and the churches and universities in their domains have become the envy of the rest of the Imperium. Outside of Aïonis and the cities on the Peninsula, no one has a better collection of the foundational texts of the Imperium than Aspaña. There are even some texts in the great Library at Tholeto that can be found nowhere else.

In addition to Tholeto (the capital), there are seven other cities that form the primary administrative districts of the duchy. They are: Nadrith, Falona, Bhaleshia, Avietha, Sagrosa, Gorvotha, and Zeville. They are ruled by both secular and spiritual authorities. There are a total of three Archdeacons in the duchy (archdeacon being a step down from the Prefects, who are the ultimate authority in the Church).

The history of Aspaña reaches back into the darkest days before the founding of the Imperium. After the destructive war of the Old Ones that brought the entire continent to a nadir, there were many wandering tribes that struggled to make some semblance of order out of the chaos and death. The Valariks were the tribe that eventually carved out a state that roughly corresponds to the present Aspaña.

Once the Imperium was founded, Nestoria, the third daughter of the first two Imperators, went westward and married into one of the chief families among the Valariks. From that union was born the current ducal house, along with its numerous subsidiaries and cadet branches.

It is important to note that, periodically, heresies will bubble up in this most devout of duchies. Indeed, some of the most pernicious of heretical movements have found a home here, due in no small part to the historic tendency of the Valarik people to subscribe to the Iorian Heresy, which proclaimed that the Name was solely female rather than a duality.

There have also been a number of damaging feuds within the ducal family, which has led to several pronounced periods of unrest. The duchy also has contentious relationships with its neighbours, and its meddling in the affairs of Busquel has been particularly resented. Ferdinand and Leonara have also begun positioning their eldest daughter to marry the son of the current duke of Porçal.

Recent events have suggested that the two nobles might be angling for a more prominent part in the rule of the Imperium. While they have long been devout and devoted supporters of Talinissia, they have always had a keen sense of which way the wind is blowing, and like all of the ducal families of the Imperium they have a longstanding yearning for the throne. They are one of the few of the Great Houses that has not yet been able to seize it.

In fact, there are even some rumours that the Duke and Duchess have established contacts with certain Prefects of the Church, particularly a young man who hails from the district outside of Tholeto. It remains to be seen what fruits will come of this dynastic wrangling.

World Building (13): The Anukathi

West of the continent of Aridikh (on which the Imperium, Korray, and Haranshar) are located, lies the great landmass known as Shumeru. This vast land is home to the people known as the Anukathi, who from time immemorial have haunted the imaginations of those living on the continent to the east.

There are many legends surrounding this mysterious people, but truth, as so often, is stranger than fiction. They are the progeny of renegade elohim who, when the various worlds were united as one, broke the law of the Name and lay with human women. When the One World was shattered by the cataclysmic clash between the Name and the Demiurge, the Anukathi were likewise scattered across dozens of worlds.

More often than not, they did not survive their encounters with their mortal cousins. It has been the good fortune of the Anukathi of this world that they have managed to maintain a presence on their continent and that the mortals who live there have largely been subservient to their wishes. As a result, they have been able to build a truly splendid and beautiful civilization, one that is the rival of any.

In large part, this is because they have been able to leverage the Art of Binding to reinforce their great architectural works with the daimons that provide the strength of aethyr, the purest and most powerful element. Given that they are, in essence, avowed enemies of the Name and all of their creations (including the daimons and the elohim), this should come as no surprise.

The Anukathi are tall and often slight of build, with coppery skin and black hair. Their eyes typically appear in some shade of green, though it is not unheard of for those in the purest bloodlines to have either brown or blue eyes. Though they are light, they are fearsome fighters, and before the establishment of the United Kingdom, they were prone to bloody wars between rival principalities and city-states.

There are roughly three castes in Anukathi society, with the priests at the top, the warriors and nobles in the middle, and the laborers and craftsmen at the bottom. The Anukathi are great admirers of tradition and stability, and thus this stratified society tends to not be very flexible. With very few exceptions, individuals are bound to stay within the caste into which they are born. While this is by nature restrictive, it means that, for several centuries, the Anukathi have enjoyed a particularly pronounced period of political and social flourishing.

They are ruled over by the High Queen Y’Narra, who rules from atop her zithurat. The other great houses of the Anukathi also remain ensconced in their zithurats, where they rule over their clients and over their districts. The Anukathi tend to be very urban-oriented, though there are numerous large estates scattered across the continent, most of which are in the hands of the great lords and landowners.

The High Queen is also the leader of the state (and only) religion, which worships the person of the Great Goddess, Ishatath, who is understood to be the font of all that is ordered, beautiful, and good in the material world. The Anukathi see the world beyond the flesh as one of frightening despair, and it is for this reason that they take every care not to succumb to wounds or fighting. Given that their elohim blood has gifted them with immortality, they are almost impervious to any kind of illness, though there is a possibility that they might be susceptible to diseases born from the continent from Aridikh. For this reason, and because of their innate distrust of mortals, any trading on their shores is strictly monitored, controlled, and disciplined.

Some native mortals can be found on the continent, though they occupy a largely subaltern position. However, the Anukathi are renowned for their sense of justice and fairness, and slavery as such is forbidden by their most sacred laws. Thus, almost every mortal is held in a form of serfdom. While they are technically free, their economic circumstances are such that they are bound to the land and to the lord.

As the events of the novel will demonstrate, there are deep currents at work in the land of the Anukathi, and it may be that their Queen has a greater destiny ahead of her than anyone thought possible.

Reading History: “The Last Tudor” (Philippa Gregory)

I’ve been reading Philippa Gregory’s books since around 2005, when I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t yet read all of then, but I’ve read enough to have a solid sense of her style and her interests and author, as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a writer of historical fiction.

Her most recent outing, The Last Tudor, puts Gregory’s puts all of that on display.

Broken into three parts, the book centers on the three Grey sisters: Jane, Katherine, and Mary. Jane, of course, has gone down in history as the Nine Days Queen, executed by Queen Mary as a result of her father’s foolish rebellion. Katherine, equally foolish, married a Seymour without first gaining the permission from the Queen, a crime also committed by her sister Mary, who marries a commoner and also finds herself imprisoned.

Jane, in keeping with the traditions of depicting her in historical fiction, emerges as something of a prig, convinced of her own wisdom, erudition, and piety. However, her self-assurance doesn’t keep her from being manipulated by others–notably her parents–into usurping the throne when her cousin Edward VI. Though frequently insufferable, Gregory does capture moments of genuine pathos with this quintessential Protestant martyr.

If only the same could be said of her younger sister Katherine. Though Katherine was surely a complicated and tragic character, in Gregory’s rather unsuitable hand she becomes an insufferable ninny, so swept up by her passion for the young Edward Seymour that she marries him without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, earning both of them imprisonment. As a character, she seems quite the dunce, especially as she moves from bad decision to bad decision. She can’t quite seem to wrap her head around why it might be that Elizabeth would see her as a threat, despite the fact that she constantly draws attention to the fact of her own superiority to her cousin.

It is Mary, ironically, who emerges as the most interesting and insightful character, though she also has the least to do. After her ill-considered marriage to Thomas Keyes, she is shuttled between various keepers. While her chapters are often witty and sardonic, the downside is that most of what she relates has to do with the travails of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. As a result, these chapters tend to drag.

All three sisters’ narrations are marred by one of Gregory’s increasingly prevalent tics: repetition. We endlessly hear about how one of the sisters might become the center of an effort to replace Elizabeth, how each of them is better than Elizabeth, how they all hate Elizabeth. I would probably have much more patience for Gregory’s consistent foibles if she didn’t have such a naked vendetta against Elizabeth I. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve long been a fan of QE I, even though I recognize that she has a lot to answer for. Still, Gregory takes this to extremes, and she clearly believes that Elizabeth was responsible for the death of Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart. Given that historians now agree that Elizabeth was most likely innocent, this is at best farfetched and at worst deliberately misleading.

It’s not surprising that the three Grey sisters would see their cousin the queen through their own perspective, but it does strain credulity that three members of the ruling dynasty would not be a little more canny about their life choices. Having been raised to be conscious of their royal connections through their grandmother Queen Mary, they surely would have realized that their marriages had consequences far beyond their personal happiness. What’s more, it’s quite frustrating to read them making these foolish choices, especially as, if they had been wiser and cannier about maneuvering through court politics, they might have seen their children on the throne rather than enduring years of grueling captivity.

In the last several Gregory novels, we hear incessantly about how infertile the Tudors are, how paranoid they are because of this, and how they will willingly punish (or kill) anyone who they perceive as a threat. While there is something to this, and while I am aware that Elizabeth could be quite malicious, Gregory’s lack of subtlety mars what might have been a nuanced exploration of the truly tragic fates of three interesting figures in the Tudor family.

I suppose my greatest frustration with this novel was the fact that the story could have been told better, either by Gregory or someone else. The author’s note suggests that she is moving on from the Tudor and I, for one, must reluctantly admit that this is certainly a good thing.

Character Sketch: Talinissia

To understand Talinissia, it is important to understand her complicated family history. Her father Kleophanes IV was a tremendously successful Imperator, bringing order and stability to a realm that had been faced with a number of internal and external challenges during the reign of the previous Imperators. The Imperium had suffered a number of military setbacks against the Korrayin, and under the reign of Ioannes had seen the final one of the border forts abandoned. Meanwhile, the kings of the northern realms grew dangerously close to seceding from the Imperium altogether.

As a result of his history of shrewd diplomacy and effective war-making, it came as a surprise (and an unpleasant one) to many when Kleophanes proposed to marry the daughter of the Kidakaia of Eshkum, a rebellious kingdom in the southeast of Haranshar. The move was a shrewd one on his part, as it sowed the seeds of discord in the Imperium.

As a result of her mother’s ancestry, Talinissia has been known behind her back as Talinissia the Black, a sly dig on the part of the nobles of the Imperium to distance themselves from her rule. Indeed, her skin color sets her apart from many in her realms, and while her father never treated her differently, she couldn’t help but be aware of her difference from the majority of her subjects.

Kleophanes and his wife had 15 happy years, but she was stricken down by an outbreak of the plague that occurred. Kleophanes, seeing the need for another heir, took as his wife Gertrude of the duchy of Dūrken, who gave birth to his son, Gaius. Gertrude, as a member of the ducal house, also had Imperial Blood, and so there were many who saw in Gaius a purer heir than Talinissia.

Indeed, it was the restive nature of her nobility that allowed her younger brother Gaius to begin plotting against her. When she called for a full meeting of the Senate to officially grant her the offices and styles that were, according to tradition, her due as the heir to her father, there was no small amount of discontent and even a few nobles who outright refused to do so. This gave her brother the excuse he needed, and he led a revolt that soon involved both many tribes of the Korrayin but also Haranshar itself.

The war was a relatively short one as such things go, but it was bloody for all of that. Once the revolt collapsed and Gaius was taken into custody, Talinissia was forced to execute her brother. She was then granted the honors and titles she had been denied. Despite her victory, memories of that rebellion continue to haunt her even now, a decade after her brother’s death. She is regularly visited by visions of him, both alive and dead. And she struggles to fill the shoes of her larger-than-life father, as well as Dominika, the formidable Imperator of the past, known as The Deathless by subsequent historians.

Talinissia has formed a number of important alliances, but her most important and influential adviser is the Prefect Eulicia. The two share many characteristics, and each of them sees in the other an avenue to power. For Talinissia, the Prefect is one of the few people in the entire Imperium whom she can trust. In all of the ornate ritual that governs the court–the eunuchs, the ladies-in-waiting–Talinissia often feels as if she is losing part of herself, but Eulicia is always there.

However, there are others who are circling the throne, waiting for her to show the slightest sign of weakness. The people are still restive, especially since the freedoms they had earned as a result of the Plague have begun to be chipped away. Furthermore, many of the Great Houses are angling to take the throne for themselves, chief among them Duke Childerick, who still feels the bite of being passed over after the death of Gaius. Subsequent events will show that he is willing to do anything to gain the throne he believes is his.

However, Talinissia has also begun to be tormented by visions of a bleak future, one in which the armies of Haranshar once again bring all that they have against the Imperium. As the events of the novel will show, she does not want to go to war with the vast empire to the east, but she does want to make sure that the Imperium remains safe. She takes her duty as the Imperator very seriously, and she will do whatever it takes to make sure that it does not fall.

No matter what it takes.

Weekly Rant: The Case for Education

The Atlantic, that bastion of American ideas and intelligence, recently published an article by Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University. In his piece (an excerpt from his forthcoming book), he makes the claim that education has ceased to fill a valuable function in American society. As an economist at George Mason University, he apparently believes that this gives him the erudition to make the case that students are hopelessly ill-served by America’s education system.

Now, I haven’t read the book (it isn’t due for publication until January), but what I have read made my blood boil. It reeks of the very worst sort of lazy reasoning and premises being mistaken for conclusions. As such, it deserves all of the condemnation that we who believe in the value of higher education can muster.

For example, he proclaims that he is cynical about students, “the vast majority of whom,” he proclaims, are “philistines.” He’s cynical about teachers, “the vast majority” of whom are “uninspiring.” Naturally, he also finds higher education administrators even worse, prone to caving in to the whims of their entitled students rather than leading the organization in the way they should (presumably in the drive to make more money).

Read that again. “Philistine.” “Uninspiring.” Seeing these words literally took my breath away. How was it possible, I wondered, for a professor at a prestigious university to speak with such brazen dismissal of the essential elements of our education system. The words ultimately reveal more about the author than they do about the subject of his ill-concealed ire. If he is as nakedly contemptuous of his students in his classroom as he is in his writing, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that they do not do well in his classes. As I’ve said time and again, students know when you disrespect them or are dismissive of their abilities, and their performance in classes will reflect this.

At a deeper level, however, I fundamentally disagree with his stance regarding the purpose of education and, just as importantly, the reasons why it seems to have so little reward for those who undertake it. I would suggest that the problem is far more complicated. The rush to standardize education has, I argue, drained it of the joy that it once had for many. It’s hard to feel enthusiasm when you know that you are basically just learning for a test. What’s more, we as a culture have increasingly stopped thinking about the value of the life of the mind, of deliberately seeking out new books, thinkers, writers, artists, and films in an attempt to make ourselves think differently. Rather than seeing students’ apathy and inability to retain knowledge as a failing of education, I would suggest that it is a failing of our culture, and it will require a dramatic cultural shift to adequately address it (and education will play a key role in this).

Unsurprisingly, as an economist Caplan seems to be under the mistaken impression that, because the world apparently has a low demand for professions such as historian, author, etc., that this means that they should be shuffled off this mortal coil. Since there is no demand for them, they have no place in our culture. I find this to be not only wrong, but dangerous. It is precisely the artists and historians and creative people that make a society more than just a bunch of automatons lurching from one “productive” job to another. They are the people that make culture, and while we may not agree with how they do so, that doesn’t mitigate or undercut their necessity. If we hope to create an American culture that maintains its vibrancy, we need to make sure that we elevate these producers of culture, and one of the primary places that can happen is in our institutions of higher education.

There are so many things wrong-headed about Caplan’s approach, so many of which are bound up with the privilege involved in his position. For many people from minority groups–women, people of color, LGBT people–education provides not just a means of leveling the playing field and gaining some much-needed social mobility, but a means of encountering new ways of thinking. To suggest, as he does with such flippancy, that these have no value, is a perilous mistake, one that we indulge at our peril.

If we hope to make this world more justice, more beautiful, and more peaceful, we need education.

Without it, we are surely doomed.